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Phil Willmott: How to write a play

Bevan Celestine in I Wish to Die Singing at the Finborough Theatre. Photo: Scott Rylander Bevan Celestine in I Wish to Die Singing at the Finborough Theatre. Photo: Scott Rylander
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One of the things I love most about my work as a playwright is the justification it gives me to lie on the sofa all day reading and watching YouTube clips. This, despite the belief of partner, pets and visiting parents, is not sloth (well, not entirely) but rather the research you need to do before you can write stuff.

Over the last year or so I’ve enjoyed commissions which have required me to read up on subjects as diverse as the Krays, Wagner, Broadway in the 1950s and ’60s, the Prohibition, homophobia in the Indian music industry and the marriages of Doris Day, none of which I knew much about before.

My colleague Neil McPherson recently had to research the Armenian genocide for the Finborough’s current production and we got talking about the process of turning a head full of information into a play. Here are a few tips if you’re new to the process:

1. Make like a sponge

Just saturate yourself in words and images of the period. They can be real or you can absorb other artists’ attempts to replicate it on screen, canvas, record or words. My advice is not to take notes, which creates a distraction from soaking up information. If something sparks an idea, you’ll remember it. If you don’t, it probably isn’t worth remembering. You don’t need to compile a notebook of facts and figures these days when everything you need is a few clicks away.

2. It’s the story, stupid

Once you’re thoroughly doused in work from or about the period, put it all to the back of your mind then think about a story. You can have amassed the most fascinating understanding of your subject but nobody will be interested if they don’t care what happens next. The strength of your plot is paramount to your success. Do not concoct a series of events designed to showcase your research. At this stage working out how to cram everything in will handicap you.

3. Throw rocks at trees

Just devise a simple story arc. It can be as basic as girl meets boy, they are parted, then reunited. Or a hero in peril teams up with an odd assortment of friends to overcome danger by drawing on the skills of each. Or character leaves home on some kind of quest, defeats obstacles and returns changed by the experience.

My favourite dramatic shape is the classic three-act formula: chase hero up a metaphorical tree, throw metaphorical rocks at him or her, get him/her down.

Work out who your central character might be from the world you’ve researched then plot a course for him or her through one of the the established story arcs.

4. Start writing

Now you’re ready to write. Jettison any information or dialogue that you might be tempted to include just to show off your research. You should service the plot and only the plot. The classic storylines may feel simplistic and restrictive when you begin but you’ll soon find that such a solid core will allow you the freedom to take events in all kinds of interesting and subtle directions.

If you’ve done the lying on the sofa bit thoroughly enough you’ll find your research automatically informs the dialogue and situations. But just remember to never let the research dictate the story.

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